Friedrich Nietzsche is a favorite whipping boy among Christians. It’s difficult to blame my fellow Christians for this. After all, Nietzsche is known for many provocative anti-Christian statements, but his most provocative statement might be that “God is dead.”
And yet, in his latest book A God Torn to Pieces: The Nietzsche Case, philosopher Guiseppe Fornari makes a claim that is just as provocative: “In the end [Nietzsche] was much closer to Christ than many who would claim to be Christians.”
Wait …Nietzsche was closer to Christ than many Christians? How could that be?
Nietzsche understood the implications of what Christ did on Good Friday better than many who claim to be Christians. Nietzsche was closer to Christ than many Christians because he knew the Christ that he rejected, whereas many Christians don’t know the Christ whom they call Lord and Savior.
Who was the Christ that Nietzsche rejected and that many Christians do not know? It’s the Christ who says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Nietzsche rejected Christ because he couldn’t believe in a God who offers this universal forgiveness. And the truth is that many who claim to be Christians can’t believe in that God either.
In fact, while many Christians demonize Nietzsche with their words, they actually agree with him with their actions. Nietzsche saw that human history was built upon sacrifice, and that it was our “noble duty to sacrifice men,”* but not just men, we must also sacrifice God. Here’s a profound reflection from Nietzsche for your Good Friday meditation:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe the blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? (The Gay Science, section 125.)
Notice where the violence comes from in Nietzsche’s analysis – the violence is purely human. God is dead and we have killed him. Jesus was in no way God’s victim; rather, Jesus was our sacrificial victim. Humans are responsible for the murder of God in Christ. Nietzsche knew this, but he also knew that Jesus became a victim of human violence in order to stop human violence. And Nietzsche knew that Jesus provides the only alternative to violence, which is forgiveness.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Nietzsche’s problem wasn’t his analysis that “we have killed God.” Good Friday proves him right. His problem was that he rejected the alternative of universal forgiveness that Jesus offered from the cross. Jesus’ universal forgiveness seeks to transform us from being murders into being forgivers.
And that’s where Nietzsche consciously rejected Christ, and that’s where many Christians don’t know Christ. To know Christ is to know that in his life, death, and resurrection Christ freely offers forgiveness to all – even to those who have become “murderers of all murderers.”
For Nietzsche, Jesus’ attempt to end sacrificial violence was foolish because he believed that humans need sacrificial violence to survive. To show this he compared the death of Jesus to many ancient sacrificial myths and discovered that they are structurally similar. The god is murdered by an angry mob that is united in their violence against a divine victim. After the mob murdered their victim order was restored. The only difference between the murder of Jesus and the murder of the mythical gods is in interpretation. Take Nietzsche’s comparison between the Greek god Dionysus and Jesus:
Dionysus versus the “Crucified”: there you have the antithesis. It is not a difference in regard to their martyrdom—it is a difference in the meaning of it. [In Dionysus] Life itself, its eternal fruitfulness and recurrence, creates torment, destruction, the will to annihilation. In the other case, suffering—the “Crucified as the innocent one”—counts as an objection to this life, as a formula to its condemnation. (The Will to Power, 542-543.)
Nietzsche clearly saw the alternatives: either we live by Dionysian myth that justifies the use of violence to maintain life’s “eternal fruitfulness,” peace, and order, or we live by the Gospel of Jesus Christ that refuses to create peace through violence, but offers another way: peace through forgiveness.
Nietzsche consciously chose the way of Dionysus, and the way of violence drove him mad because he couldn’t accept the forgiveness of Christ in his own life. And yet by clearly seeing the alternative between Dionysus and the “Crucified,” Nietzsche was closer to Christ than many who profess to be Christian. Many Christians are far from Christ because while they profess Christ, they actually believe in Dionysus; they actually believe in a god who justifies their violence rather than leads them in the way of forgive.
And the Christian world is going mad because we don’t believe in Christ who leads us to love and forgive all, including our enemies.
When we incarcerate with a vengeance rather than rehabilitate with mercy, are we following Dionysus or the Crucified?
When we deny universal healthcare for the sick, the weak, and the poor, are we following Dionysus or the Crucified?
When we deport and demean immigrant laborers, mercilessly separating parents from their children, are we following Dionysus or the Crucified?
When we return violence for violence, invading and bombing nations in the name of “justice,” are we following Dionysus or the Crucified?
This Good Friday, let’s be conscious of the alternative between Dionysus and Christ Crucified. And let’s consciously choose Christ.
Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.